Monday, February 25, 2008

NYU Ransom Notes Online Town Hall

The NYU Child Study Center will be hosting an online forum Tuesday, Feb. 26 for discussion of future advertising campaigns to replace the offensive Ransom Notes ads. ASAN is asking autistic self-advocates to take the time to attend the forum and express the concerns of our community. Ari Ne'eman wrote a letter explaining the issues to be raised at the forum:

Hello all,

This past December, we scored a great victory for the disability rights movement. By working together, we succeeded in forcing the full withdrawal of the offensive and dehumanizing Ransom Notes advertisements put out by the NYU Child Study Center. As you may recall, at the time of the ads withdrawal, NYU promised to hold a town hall meeting sometime in the future to address the concerns the disability community expressed. A lot has happened since then and our work has continued on a wide variety of fronts, from working to improve the education system for students on the autism spectrum to advocating for self-advocate representation in all parts of the policy process, amongst many other things. However, the time has come for us to return to the issues that sparked the massive response to the Ransom Notes ad campaign. On Tuesday, February 26th from 11 AM to 1 PM EST, the NYU Child Study Center will be hosting an online town hall to discuss "children's mental health" in response to the public outcry that shut down the Ransom Notes ads. While the medium is hardly perfect, the input collected during this will serve as the basis for future ad campaigns. As such, it is important that when this town hall occurs tomorrow, the disability community's advocates are well represented.

In light of that, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network is asking all of you to come to the online town hall and speak out against offensive depictions of people with all types of disabilities. The information to join the town hall will be found on the NYU Child Study Center's website at Please post this information to any and all forums, listservs, blogs or other locations whose readers might find it of interest. In addition, we've provided some major points to touch upon in the context of your advocacy tomorrow:

1. Nothing About Us, Without Us: Although self-advocates were the leading voices against the Ransom Notes ad campaign, the NYU Child Study Center has consistently referred to parents as being the primary group concerned about the offensive nature of the ads. Well this appears to be a relatively minor point, it illustrates a larger failure to recognize and respect adults with disabilities. When the Ransom Notes ads were being created, they were shown to a focus group of parents of children with disabilities. When the new ads are put together, they must be screened by focus groups of people with disabilities ourselves, in addition to any other stakeholders that are included in the process. People with disabilities must be included at every step of the process. Make sure that is an important part of the message you send to NYU tomorrow.

2. Advertise Hope, Not Fear: Too often, depictions of disability in the media rely on fear and negative stereotypes, thus increasing stigma and hurting our efforts for rights, inclusion and respect. The Ransom Notes ads were particularly egregious examples of this trend. Tell NYU that its future ad campaign should be based on what people with disabilities can achieve with the right kinds of education, services and supports and how individuals and families can access those options. Two excellent examples can be found in the National Autistic Society's Think Differently About Autism Campaign and the Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare Cure Pity Campaign. Referencing these examples of positive advertising about disability issues can serve as a helpful tool as we work to communicate our vision of a supportive awareness campaign about disability.

3. Ensure Accurate Information: The Ransom Notes ads used phrases like "detriment to himself and those around him", "destroying his ability for social interaction and driving him into a life of complete isolation", and "no longer be able to care for himself or interact socially as long as he lives" to distort information about the legitimate and significant challenges associated with the disabilities being portrayed. These statements were attacked as not only highly offensive, but medically inaccurate. We need a world that accommodates and includes us, not one that fears and pities us on the basis of bad information. The next ad campaign should acknowledge and accurately describe the challenges we face, but do so in such a way as to encourage the general public to be understanding and supportive of those difficulties.

4. Acknowledge Ability and Personhood: The Ransom Notes ads depicted children with disabilities as "kidnap victims" who were not wholly present within their own bodies. The new ads must not only acknowledge and respect the fact that both youth and adults with disabilities are whole individuals, deserving of rights and respect, but should also focus on depicting individuals with disabilities as people with both strengths and challenges. Some argue that the areas where we have strengths do not need calling attention to, as we are not seeking the same level of support for those things. While it is the case that the challenges associated with disability require more funding and attention, what we can do also should be highlighted. The reason for this is that, for many people, the stigma associated with the diagnostic label they hold can be just as much or more of a problem for them as the lack of specific services to mitigate the disabilities they face. The need to debunk mistaken preconceptions, such as the belief that a person with a disability cannot hold a job or be a responsible parent, is at least as pressing as the need to ensure more services and supports.

5. Bring Adults Into the Conversation: Children with disabilities become adults with disabilities - and that is by no means a problem. What is a problem is the lack of awareness and support for adults with disabilities. There is a perception, reinforced by the media and advertising that portrays certain disabilities as solely the province of children, that some kinds of disabilities only relate to children. This is particularly true in the case of the autism spectrum and with learning disabilities, both of which were portrayed by the Ransom Notes advertisements. The problem is so extensive that a recent author of a bestselling book about autism announced that autistic adults did not exist! A media campaign that will truly draw attention to the varied and pressing needs of the disability community will highlight the issues of both youth and adults.

Thank you for your support and we look forward to having you join us in making sure that our concerns are heard tomorrow. Let's make sure NYU hears our voices. As always, Nothing About Us, Without Us!


Ari Ne'eman
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network
1101 15th Street, NW Suite 1212
Washington, DC 20005

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